Argentina Braces Itself for Its New ‘Anarcho-Capitalist’ President

Javier Milei was first introduced to the Argentine public as a combative television personality with an unruly hairdo and a tendency to insult his critics. So when he entered Argentina’s presidential race last year, he was viewed by many as a sideshow.

On Sunday, he was elected Argentina’s next president, and is now tasked with guiding one of Latin America’s largest economies out of one of its worst economic crises.

Many Argentines awoke on Monday anxious, others hopeful, but just about everyone was uncertain about what lay ahead.

Perhaps the only certainty about the country’s political and economic future was that, in three weeks, a far-right political outsider with little governing experience was set to take the reins of a government that he has vowed to upend.

In other words, it is Argentina’s Donald Trump moment.

Mr. Milei, a libertarian economist and freshman congressman, made clear in his victory speech on Sunday that he would move fast to overhaul the government and economy. “Argentina’s situation is critical,” he said. “The changes that our country needs are drastic. There is no place for gradualism.”

Markets cheered his election, with Argentine stocks and bonds rising on U.S. exchanges (the Argentine market was closed for a holiday). Even without clarity on what he can accomplish, markets appear to view him as a better economic bet than his mostly leftist predecessors.

Failed economic policies — including overspending, protectionist trade measures, suffocating international debt and the printing of more pesos to pay for it — have sent the nation of 46 million people into an economic tailspin.

Annual inflation has surpassed 140 percent, the world’s third highest rate, leaving many residents rushing to spend or convert their pesos to U.S. dollars or cryptocurrencies as quickly as they can, while the country’s growing number of poor increasingly line up at food banks and soup kitchens.

People collecting discarded produce outside the central market in Buenos Aires. Annual inflation has surpassed 140 percent, the world’s third highest rate.Credit…Tomas Cuesta/Getty Images

To fix it, Mr. Milei has proposed turning the world’s 22nd largest economy into a laboratory for radical economic ideas that have largely been untested elsewhere.

Mr. Milei, 53, has said he wants to slash spending and taxes, privatize state companies, eliminate 10 of the 18 federal ministries, move public schools to a voucher system, make the public health care system insurance-based, close the nation’s central bank and replace the Argentine peso with the U.S. dollar.

He identifies as an “anarcho-capitalist,” which, he has said, is a radically free-market strain of libertarianism that believes “society functions much better without a state than with a state.”

Now he is the head of the state.

“This is a completely new scenario we’ve never been in,” said María O’Donnell, an Argentine political journalist and radio host. “Milei has these very extravagant ideas we’ve never seen implemented anywhere in the world.”

There has been little consensus among economists over the best path ahead for Argentina, but few had suggested Mr. Milei’s approach before he arrived on the scene — and few know what to expect now that he is in charge.

On Monday morning, Mr. Milei already began to wobble on some of his campaign pledges. In one radio interview, he said Argentine law would restrict him from privatizing health care and education. In another, when asked about his plan to use the U.S. dollar, he responded that “the currency we adopt will be the currency that Argentines choose.”

What does that mean? “I’m not sure he knows,” said Eduardo Levy Yeyati, an Argentine economist and professor.

Mr. Levy Yeyati interpreted it as a sign that Mr. Milei would first aim to eliminate most restrictions on trading foreign currencies, which the Argentine government has restricted as part of its effort to prop up the value of the Argentine peso. Mr. Milei’s other comments on Monday appeared to support that idea.

The Central Bank of Argentina in Buenos Aires. Mr. Milei has said he would like to replace the Argentine peso with the U.S. dollar.Credit…Agustin Marcarian/Reuters

“Argentina has historically been a laboratory for weird ideas,” Mr. Levy Yeyati said, but many are never implemented because of economic and political realities.

He said that he believes the same will happen with Mr. Milei, at least at first. “There will be a reality check,” he said. “Most of these proposals will still be talked about, but it will be hard to implement them in the first year.”

Mr. Milei is expected to have to make political deals to carry out his plans, as his two-year-old political party controls just 10 percent of the seats in Argentina’s Senate and 15 percent in its lower house of Congress.

He will most likely broker many of those deals with Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s former president, a conservative who has retained broad control over a large political party. The two met on Sunday night.

Fernando Iglesias, a congressman from that conservative bloc, said that he and his colleagues were eager to help Mr. Milei fix the nation. “It’s true that he has the handicap of inexperience,” he added, “but I’m hopeful that he can put together a reasonable governing team to make the changes the country needs.”

While many key people in Mr. Milei’s campaign also lack much governing experience, they have pitched that as an asset, not a liability, and many voters agreed.

One person who will almost certainly have influence in the new government is Mr. Milei’s sister, Karina Milei, who ran his campaign and whom he has described as his most important adviser.

In a 2021 television interview, he even compared her to Moses, the biblical figure bearing the message of God. “Kari is Moses,” he said with tears in his eyes. “I’m the one spreading the word.”

Ms. Milei has been an enigma in Argentina, always present at Mr. Milei’s side but almost never speaking publicly. Not much is known about her past, beyond unconfirmed reports in the Argentine news media that she studied public relations in college, ran a cupcake business and co-owned a tire shop. Mr. Milei’s campaign said she would help run the transition.

Mr. Milei’s sister, Karina Milei, leaving a hotel in Buenos Aires on Monday. Ms. Milei ran her brother’s campaign and is expected to run the transition.Credit…Luis Robayo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Milei announced Monday that his justice minister would be Mariano Cúneo Libarona, a lawyer turned television pundit who rose to prominence defending celebrities, including in a 1996 drug case when he represented the soccer star Diego Maradona’s manager.

His new foreign minister, Diana Mondino, an economist, told reporters that one of the government’s main foreign policy goals was to end most regulations on imports and exports. She also said that Argentina would likely not enter the BRICS club of emerging nations, as had been announced in August.

“We don’t understand, with the public information available now, what the advantage would be for Argentina,” she told reporters at Mr. Milei’s victory rally on Sunday. “If you all can explain to me what the BRICS are, I’ll take advantage and learn.”

Mr. Milei’s running mate, Victoria Villarruel, has spent much of her career running an organization that recognizes victims of attacks carried out by leftist guerrillas, which Argentina’s military used as justification for its bloody dictatorship from 1976 to 1983.

Ms. Villarruel, who comes from an Argentine military family, has long claimed that the atrocities of the dictatorship have been overstated, claiming that 8,500 people disappeared despite declassified records showing that even the military admitted, just two years into its rule, that the number was 22,000.

Ms. Villarruel and Mr. Milei were elected to Argentina’s lower house of Congress together in 2021, the first two seats for their Liberty Advances party.

Mr. Milei has spent little time in Congress since, proposing his first bill just earlier this month, calling on the government to do more to bring home the roughly 25 Argentines held hostage by Hamas.

Supporters of Mr. Milei celebrating in Buenos Aires on Sunday night. Argentines were reeling on Monday with what Mr. Milei could bring, both good and bad.Credit…Adriano Machado/Reuters

Across the country, Argentines were reeling on Monday with what Mr. Milei could bring, both good and bad.

Micaela Sánchez, 31, an actress and drama teacher, said she and many friends were worried by Mr. Milei’s pledges to overhaul the government, his history of attacking political adversaries and his comments downplaying the atrocities of the dictatorship.

“It’s really a bleak and frightening panorama for all of us who work in culture, who work with people, for those who educate, and for those in health care,” she said. “The only thing I can say is that I’m very scared and very sad.”

But Yhoel Saldania, 27, a shop owner in Buenos Aires, said keeping Argentina as it is would have been far riskier than taking a bet on Mr. Milei. “The other governments promise and promise, and nothing ever changes,” he said. “We want a change that’s real.”

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